Spirituality Versus Theology?

by Kevin L. Hester

It happened again this year. Another pastoral student confided in me that when he announced his intent to attend Welch College, he was warned about studying theology and told not to let those theologians “ruin his spirit.” It doesn’t surprise me anymore, but I still have a difficult time understanding the dichotomy that so many place between spirituality and theological education.

Sometimes this caution comes out of fear. When Protestant liberalism arose in the late nineteenth century, theological education came to be associated with criticism of the biblical text and skepticism over the cardinal doctrines of the Church. Many biblically-conservative believers did not have the resources to battle such attacks and instead retreated to a fideistic maxim of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

For others, these warnings come from a misguided perception that religion is about the heart and the head has little to do with it. They argue that fervor and feeling define spirituality rather than doctrine and dogma. We may indeed sanctify the Lord in our hearts but we are at the same time called to be ready to give an answer for our hope (I Peter 3:15); and one of the minister’s primary attributes is that he be “apt to teach” (2 Timothy 2:24).

I have learned that these objections aren’t new nor are they confined to Free Will Baptists. In 1911, B. B. Warfield answered this concern in his opening address to students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The resulting essay, The Religious Life of Theological Students, still provides helpful insight. Instead of dividing spirituality and theology, Warfield answers with an illustration: “Recruiting officers do not dispute whether it is better for soldiers to have a right leg or a left leg: soldiers should have both legs.” In the same way, both proper religion and proper theology require balance and reciprocity. But should I take time away from prayer and visitation for study? Is not one investment of time better than the other? Warfield asks, “Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God?” Instead, we should understand that “religion does not take a man away from his work; it sends him to his work with an added quality of devotion.”

However, it is not that there are no dangers associated with theological study and Warfield points them out as well. The student of theology can be infected by the sin of pride as easily as the student of any other discipline. There are times when theology students emphasize methods or theories over the leadership of the Spirit. But worst of all is the danger of allowing the things of God to grow commonplace. When content replaces relationship, theology becomes an idol as damnable as any other.

What then is the answer? How can we avoid uninformed, juvenile fervor and spiritless god-talk? How can we, as Warfield says, be a man “standing on two legs?”

As Forlines has pointed out, theology only occurs in the context of relationship, and foremost is a relationship with God that is continually nourished by prayer and biblical study. One of the oldest definitions of theology given by Anselm of Canterbury expressed the discipline as “faith seeking understanding.” Theology must always begin in faith and consistently return to it. Theology has never been meant to stand over against or to replace faith; instead, theology’s task is to form and inform our faith and its function in the Church. And theology, like faith, can only occur in the context and under the accountability of a believing, worshipping community.

In a helpful little apologetic on theological study entitled Who Needs Theology? Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson define theology in a way that speaks to this relational aspect, to this give and take between religion and theology in community. They argue that theology is “reflecting on and articulating the God-centered life and beliefs that we share as followers of Jesus Christ, and it is done that God might be glorified in all we are and do” (52).  Understood in this way, they give three very practical purposes served by theology.

  1. Theology strengthens our faith. Rather than sowing doubts, theology, through testing and scrutiny, convinces us of the truth of faith. The synthetic expression of biblical teaching in theology allows us to properly order biblical beliefs and to guard the centrality of the Gospel. In defining our faith, theology helps us recognize biblical truth and reject falsehood so that we will not be easily deceived (Ephesians 4:14).

 

  1. Theology “grounds Christian living.” Good theology is intensely interested in practical expression. Not only does it define what must be believed at conversion, but it points out why Christ’s death was necessary and how we should live in the midst of a world broken by sin. The missional purpose of the kingdom demands that we know the Gospel and know our culture so that we might be prepared to proclaim the good news of Christ.

 

  1. Theology ignites our praise of God. It is a poor theologian who has never been driven to his knees by his study of theology. Theology points us back to our center in our Creator and Redeemer. It calls us back to our created purpose of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. Theology is the prism that turns the gems of biblical revelation so that the light of God continually breaks forth in new beams of His glory. The task of theology is the worship of taking every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and loving the Lord our God with our hearts, souls, and minds (Matthew 22:37).

 

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